A Fresh Start: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 4)
A woman ready to make a fresh start in life after a double tragedy. A man returning to his hometown, eager to serve his community. Two people not looking for a relationship—much less love—and finding life is better when it’s shared . . .
Deb Busby’s life implodes when a stalker causes her to be fired from her job—and when she lets him know she has no interest in him—he murders her parents. Seeking to escape her past and her enormous grief and guilt, Deb changes her name to Hope Keller and moves to the small town of Sugar Springs, purchasing the practice of the local veterinarian.
Gideon Ross had hopes for playing in the NFL until a knee injury changed his career trajectory. Becoming a detective in Dallas, Gideon is eventually given the opportunity to return to his hometown and take over as its chief of police. Divorced for a decade, he has no plans for dating, much less marriage—until he meets Dr. Hope Keller.
But Gideon’s police instincts cause him to look into Hope’s background. As his relationship with Hope heats up, he hesitates to tell her he knows about her past because he worries that it might impact their future.
Can Hope find peace in a new place and heal emotionally—and is Gideon Ross the man for her?
Find the answer in A Fresh Start, Book 4 in Sugar Springs.
Each book in this contemporary small town romance series is a standalone story that can be enjoyed out of order. Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.
1 – Shadows of the Past: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 1)
2 – Learning to Trust Again: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 2)
3 – A Perfect Match: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 3)
4 – A Fresh Start: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 4)
5 – Recipe for Love: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 5)
Release date: August 22, 2023
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
A Fresh Start: A Small Town Romance (Sugar Springs Book 4)
Deb Busby couldn’t help but smile at her date.
Tonight was going so well.
She hadn’t had a date in several months, and this one was the best she’d had since moving back to her hometown four years ago. She had been reluctant to go out with Anita’s brother, fearing if the evening fell flat that it might affect her relationship with her co-worker at the veterinary clinic where they both worked. Anita had pushed for Deb to go on the date, though, saying Jerry needed to get out after his divorce last year. He was new to Houston, having been transferred from his Boston firm a month ago.
Deb liked everything about Jerry.
He was nice-looking without being too handsome. Unlike many men, he could carry on a conversation with ease. They both had a love of sports. She had played volleyball and run track in high school, even winning an athletic scholarship to college. Jerry had also run track and played basketball. This evening had been like pulling the layers from an onion, slowly discovering things about one another. Deb hoped there would be a second date.
The server came to their table in the corner of the restaurant and asked if they needed anything else.
“No, just the check, thank you,” Jerry said.
When the server handed over the bill, he gave her his credit card, and she left to process it.
Jerry gazed across the table. “I will admit that I wasn’t happy that Anita insisted on setting us up. I’ve only had one other blind date in my life, and it was a total disaster.” He smiled at her. “This evening has been a pleasant surprise, though. I hope we can do this again soon, Deb.”
A flutter filled her chest. “Yes, I’d like to see you again. I was a little nervous about tonight myself. I was afraid if we didn’t have anything in common, it might affect my friendship with Anita.”
“We really haven’t talked about your work. How long have you been at Dr. Wallman’s practice?”
“Four years. After I graduated from vet school, I spent three years as research assistant for my favorite professor in College Station. I learned a lot, but I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and practice veterinary medicine. I wanted to be closer to my parents since I’m an only child, so I moved back to Houston. I was lucky Dr. Wallman had an opening at his practice.”
The server returned with Jerry’s credit card, and he signed for their dinner and stood, going to her chair and pulling it back, helping Deb to her feet.
They walked through the now-empty restaurant, having spent three hours over dinner. She realized they were the last patrons to leave. The time had flown by. When they reached the parking lot next to the restaurant, only a few cars remained in it.
Suddenly, an expletive flew from Jerry’s mouth, taking her aback since he’d been so polite all evening. She glanced and saw both tires on the left side of his car were flat. A chill filled her, and she quickly looked over her shoulder.
Standing across the street watching them was Cris Calder.
She whipped her head around, nausea filling her. Up until now, she’d thought Calder persistent but harmless. This changed everything.
Jerry was kneeling beside the left rear tire. “Slashed. Who would do this? I thought this was a safe part of town.”
Deb glanced across the street again, but Calder had vanished. She looked back at her date. “This is all my fault,” she blurted out.
A quizzical look crossed his face. “You’re telling me you sneaked out here when you went to the restroom and slashed my tires?”
“No,” she said quietly. “But I think I know who did.”
Frowning, he pushed to his feet. “Tell me,” he said harshly, all signs of friendliness gone. She knew what she would reveal would send Jerry packing.
“I had dinner with a guy about two months ago. He brought in his beagle, who had been struck by a car. The poor little fellow had broken a leg but was otherwise okay.” She swallowed painfully. “The client was so grateful that he asked if he could take me to dinner as a thank you. I met him at a steakhouse.”
Deb fell silent, discouraged that the pleasant evening was quickly unraveling—and she had no way to set things right.
“And?” prompted Jerry.
“He was... off. He seemed charming one minute and then... I don’t know. He just gave off a vibe that made me feel really uncomfortable. At the end of the night, I thanked him for dinner. He insisted on walking me to my car. He tried to kiss me, and I pulled away. I was totally surprised. Told him this hadn’t been a date. That he’d said that he was thankful I had saved his pup, and that’s why we’d shared a meal. He grabbed my arms and insisted it was a date and that he wanted to marry me.”
She shivered, being taken back to that night. To the pressure Calder had used, so much that it had left bruises on her arms.
“I totally freaked out. Started struggling to get away. If another couple hadn’t come upon us on the way to their car, I’m not sure what would have happened. The guy asked if I was all right. Calder released me. I jumped into my car and locked the doors and sped out of the parking lot as quickly as possible.”
Her date glared at her. “So, you go out with a guy two months ago, and now you go out with me—and think this first guy is the one who slashed my tires?”
She nodded timidly. “He’s been sending me letters. A few emails. Leaving little presents at my door. You’re the first man I’ve gone out with in several months. I’m afraid... I’m afraid he’s stalking me.”
Her date made a noise, letting Deb know how disgusted he was. “I can’t believe you let us go out when you have some psycho stalking you. Sorry. I didn’t sign up for this. I’ll call you an Uber, but I don’t want to see you again, Deb.”
“I understand,” she said quietly. “I’ll call my own ride share. You need to handle the damage to your car. Please send me the bill for any towing fees and the expense of putting on new tires.”
“Your damn right I will,” Jerry said, anger sparking in his eyes.
Deb moved away from him, bringing up her ride share app and calling for a driver. A car was only four minutes away. She looked around nervously the entire time. Fortunately, she didn’t spy Cris Calder anywhere. Deb did think to zoom in and take a picture of one of Jerry’s slashed tires, wanting to document the incident.
Getting into the car when it arrived, she knew she needed to go to the police after this latest incident. She had tried to convince herself it was nothing, but things were escalating. She had thought she could handle it, but she decided it was time to get a restraining order. Quickly, she Googled how to apply for one in Texas and saw an attorney would need to file for it on her behalf. Still, she would go to the police tomorrow to see if she also needed to file an official report there, as well. It would be hard, though, because she didn’t really have any physical proof that Calder had ruined Jerry’s tires.
The driver pulled into her apartment complex, and Deb thanked him, asking if he would wait until she got inside before leaving. He agreed, and she hurried up the sidewalk, spooked that Calder would pop out at any minute. Placing her key in the door, she unlocked it and waved at the driver, hurrying inside and locking the door behind her.
Deb got ready for bed, but it took a long time for sleep to come. When it finally did, she had a nightmare about Cris Calder chasing her with a knife.
She awoke with a start, her heart racing, and saw it was four-thirty. No sense in trying to go back to sleep. It would be impossible the way adrenaline was pouring through her body now. Instead, she made a cup of coffee and sipped on it as she dressed for the gym.
Cautiously, she opened her door, only to look down to find another gift from her stalker. She brought in the vase of flowers, the stuffed teddy bear, and the note, taking pictures of all three before throwing all but the letter in the trash.
Deb raced to her car and reached the gym by five, putting her body through a punishing workout. She preferred running the streets of her Houston neighborhood but no longer felt safe doing so.
After leaving the gym, she returned home to shower. This week, she was working from ten in the morning until seven in the evening. All the vets at Dr. Wallman’s large practice worked the same shift hours each week and then rotated the next week. Deb preferred the early shift, which began at seven, since she was a morning person, but it worked in her favor today not having to be at work until mid-morning. She Googled and found the nearest police station, driving to it. She explained to the sergeant at the desk that she wanted to speak to someone regarding a stalker, and he told her to have a seat.
Less than five minutes later, a man appeared, introducing himself as Detective Nix. He led her back to a small conference room and asked her to tell him about the man bothering her.
Deb explained how she had first encountered Cris Calder and that she willingly had gone out with him for a celebratory meal.
“He didn’t call it a date when he asked me to go, and I never thought of it as one,” she told the detective. “At the end of the night, however, he told me he was going to marry me.”
She relayed all that had happened over the last two months and showed the detective pictures on her phone of various gifts Calder had left at her doorstep. Deb handed over this morning’s note and watched as he read it.
“I believe he’s escalating,” she confided. “He followed my date and me to a restaurant last night. I’m pretty busy, and this was the first date I’d had since I’d gone to dinner with Mr. Calder.” She swallowed. “When Jerry and I came out of the restaurant, two of his tires had been slashed. I saw Cris Calder standing across the street. He was only in sight a few seconds. Just long enough to let me know he was the one responsible for the damage.”
“But you have no proof that this Calder is the one who damaged the tires,” Nix pointed out.
“I really liked the man I saw last night, Detective Nix, but when I let him know I had a problem with a guy, he quickly cut me loose. I’m worried about myself. My safety. I looked up restraining orders online, and I want to apply for one.”
The detective walked her through the process and said, “The courts are pretty backed up right now. Dr. Busby, I’m afraid it could take weeks before this goes through once your attorney files for it. Do you have a friend or family member you might be able to stay with in the meantime?”
“My parents live in town. I could stay with them. Thank you for helping me, Detective Nix. I appreciate your time.”
Deb went to her SUV and got into it, sitting behind the wheel to gather her thoughts. She realized her entire body was trembling in fear.
She couldn’t expose her parents to such a threat, especially since she believed Calder’s irrational behavior toward her was escalating. Her dad was in Stage Four of pancreatic cancer. He had abandoned all treatments last week, saying with the little time he had left, he didn’t want to be so sick from them. Her mom was hanging on by a thread. Deb refused to bring her problems into their lives now.
She got control of herself and dialed her parents’ phone number. Her mom answered on the second ring.
“Good morning, Deb, dear. How are you?”
Lying through her teeth, she replied, “I’m fine, Mom. How’s Dad this morning?”
She could hear the worry in her mother’s voice as her mom said, “Today is not a good day, honey. I’m not sure how many more days he has left, to be honest.”
“You know I said I can take off and give you some relief.”
“Oh, baby, you already come over several nights a week after work and spell me. No, your dad wouldn’t want you to miss any work over him.”
She wanted to be there for both her parents, but she was now afraid, not knowing if she should go to their house. What if Cris Calder had followed her there on one of her many visits? She didn’t want to put them in any kind of danger.
“Does Dad feel like talking?”
“No, he’s resting now. Why don’t you call later? He might feel up to talking a few minutes then.”
“Okay, Mom. I love you. Bye.”
Deb scrolled through her contacts and found Winston Pym’s name. He had served as her parents’ attorney for many decades and now acted as hers, as well.
She called, and his receptionist put her through.
“Deb, how have you been? I haven’t seen you since last Christmas at your parents’ open house.”
“I’m fine, Winston. Actually, I’m not fine. That’s why I’m calling. I have a bit of a problem. A man is stalking me. I went to the police station just now, and they recommended that I file a restraining order against him.”
Briefly, she walked the attorney through the situation, and he responded with sympathy.
“I’m sorry this has happened to you, Deb. Especially at a time like this. With what your dad is going through and all.”
“They don’t know about this, Winston. I want to keep it that way. I don’t want either of them worrying about me.”
He got some information from her and said, “I’ll file for the restraining order this morning, Deb, but the courts are moving like molasses these days.”
“Detective Nix warned me about that. He said it could take several weeks before a judge would schedule a hearing for me to attend.”
“That’s true. Once it does, the order will be in effect for two years. We’ll have to refile at the end of that period if you feel it’s necessary to extend it.”
“Let’s hope it’s over long before then. Thank you, Winston. For handling this matter and keeping things confidential.”
“I’m just sorry you’re experiencing this at such a trying time, Deb. I’ll see that paperwork is filed today and email you an update once it’s been done.”
She thanked him and started the car, heading to work. When she pulled into the parking lot, horror filled her. Over one hundred yard signs were scattered in the grass, surrounding the building.
Every one of them said in capital letters, MARRY ME, DEB.
The side of the clinic had also been vandalized, spray-painted in bright red with the same phrase, over and over. Two men with long brushes were scrubbing the words from the brick. Sick to her stomach, she entered the animal hospital.
Immediately, Anita gave her an ugly look. Whether it was because of the scene outside or that she had spoken to her brother, Deb didn’t know.
“Dr. Wallman wants to see you immediately, Dr. Busby,” Anita said frostily.
Deb went to the office and knocked on the vet’s door. He called for her to come in, and she pushed the door open.
“Have a seat, Dr. Busby,” he said sternly.
She closed the door behind her and took a chair. He always called her Deb behind closed doors. His choice of words had her steeling herself for whatever he might say.
Trying to head things off, she said, “I am so sorry, Dr. Wallman. I went to the police just this morning, and my attorney is filing for a restraining order against Cris Calder as we speak.”
“You’ve always done good work. You are nurturing and knowledgeable, and I will be happy to provide a reference for you, but this situation has gotten out of hand. Mr. Calder’s obsession with you is affecting my practice. Why, he’s even emailed me repeatedly, asking me to provide him with information about what you like. It’s becoming too disruptive. I can’t have my clinic is disarray over this situation.”
“You’re... firing me? When I’m the injured party?” she asked in disbelief.
The vet cleared his throat. “I can either let you go—or you can choose to resign. We can do this whichever way you want so that it reflects on your résumé accordingly.”
She rose. “I’ll resign then, Dr. Wallman, and I would appreciate the reference you mentioned. May I at least finish out the week? The day?”
The vet shook his head. “No. I don’t think that’s wise. Clear out your desk at once. Anita has already placed a box on your desk for your convenience.”
He stood, handing her a sheet of paper he took from his desk. “This is a copy of the recommendation I will send to any prospective employer who might request it.” A pained look crossed his face. “I’m sorry it’s come to this, Deb.”
“I’m sorry, as well,” she replied. “I’ve really enjoyed my time working at your practice.”
As if sleepwalking, Deb went to her office, where she found a cardboard box sitting on top of her desk.
She opened drawers and took a few items, placing them in the box, and then removed her diplomas from where they hung on the wall. Her bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences. Her DVM from Texas A&M’s School of Veterinarian Medicine. She swallowed the lump which had formed in her throat, hating that her time here was over. She felt at loose ends. Threatened, fearful—for herself—and anyone around her.
Deb didn’t bother saying goodbye to her colleagues. She doubted she would ever speak to anyone at the clinic again, despite four years of having worked here. She had done nothing wrong, yet she felt like the pariah as she carried the box to her car. Opening the back of the SUV, she placed the box inside and closed the hatch.
When she turned, she found Cris Calder at her elbow.
Enraged, Deb pushed him with both hands, hard in his chest, causing him to stumble back.
“Don’t ever come near me again,” she snapped. “I never want to see or hear from you. Ever. You’ve cost me my job, all because of your sick games.”
Calder smiled benignly. “If you would just marry me, Deb, you could see how happy you and I could be. I’d like four children. If you’re agreeable, that is. Two boys and two girls.”
Anger rippled through her. “You think you can just put in an order and have kids of the gender you want magically pop out? You are batshit crazy. I have applied for a restraining order against you, Calder. You aren’t allowed to communicate with me by phone, email, or letter. Or social media. You’ll have to keep your distance from me and not follow me. I never want to see you again!”
She hurried to the driver’s door and opened it.
As she got in, he said, “You don’t mean it, Deb. I know you love me. We’re meant to be together.”
Glaring at him, she said, “Even if you were the last person on earth, I wouldn’t have anything to do with you. Get out of my life.”
Slamming her car door, she started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot, her tires screeching. She drove three blocks and pulled into a Target parking lot, her hands trembling so that she gripped the wheel for support.
Deb had lost the job she loved and the friends she had at the clinic. She no longer felt safe in her own home. And she doubted her dad would last another week. A sob burst from her, followed by more wrenching sobs. She cried until she felt sick at her stomach and no more tears came.
She went home and packed a bag, hurrying back to her car. Driving aimlessly for half an hour, her eyes watching the rearview mirror the entire time, she felt assured that Cris Calder wasn’t following her. She began heading toward her parents’ house and the moment she saw a Holiday Inn Express, Deb pulled in. She went inside, furtively looked around her, and booked a room for a week, telling the desk clerk she might wish to extend her visit.
The clerk handed over a key card, and Deb took the elevator up to the fourth floor. The corridor was empty. She found her room and unlocked the door, bolting every lock once she was inside. Collapsing into the chair at the desk, Deb wondered how her life had gone off the rails so quickly. At least she was freed from work now and could spend whatever little time her dad had left with him. That was the only upside to losing her job.
She sat in the chair, paralyzed, not moving for a few hours, everything a jumble. The only thing that brought her out of her thoughts was when her cell rang. She didn’t recognize the number and for a moment, almost didn’t answer it. But it might be from a line at Winston’s law office. Or even Detective Nix, following up to see if she had filed for the restraining order.
Answering it, Deb said, “Hello?” trying to sound confident and assured.
“Is this Deborah Busby?” a voice asked.
“Yes, it is,” she replied, tapping down the nerves that raced through her.
“Ms. Busby, when was the last time you spoke to your parents?”
Glancing at her watch, she said, “I talked with my mother about three hours ago. Maybe less,” she said guardedly. “What is this about?”
“I see you have a Houston area code, Ms. Busby. Are you in town currently?”
“Who is this?” she demanded.
A slight hesitation came, and then the voice said, “I apologize for not identifying myself sooner, ma’am. This is Detective Paulson of the Houston Police Department.”
“Oh, are you partners with Detective Nix?” she asked, feeling relieved. “I met with him earlier this morning.”
“No, ma’am, I’m not. May I ask why you met with the detective?”
“I’ve had someone I know... stalking me. Detective Nix suggested I apply to the court for a restraining order. My attorney is doing so today.” Deb paused. “Wait. What is this about? If you don’t know Detective Nix, then why are you calling?”
“Because your cell number was listed as your mother’s emergency contact, ma’am,” Detective Paulson said.
“Oh! Has something happened to my dad? Has he been taken to the hospital? He’s on hospice now. He shouldn’t be revived. Did Mom lose her phone? What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, Ms. Busby, but your parents were murdered. I’m at the scene now. I’ll let the ME know when you spoke to your—”
“My parents are dead? Murdered?” she asked, her voice rising in hysteria. “I’ll be right there.”
“You can’t have access to the scene, Ms. Busby. It would be better if we met at the station.” He paused. “And you’ll have to make the ID for us, as well, to confirm it’s them.”
“But who... why...” Her voice trailed off.
Then realization dawned on her.
“You need to arrest Cris Calder, Detective. He’s my stalker. He’s the one who killed my parents.”
Dallas—A Year Later
Former detective Gideon Ross took one last look at his Dallas apartment. He had lived in it for nine years, ever since his divorce from Melinda. He had never had a friend over. Never brought a woman here. It was a holding space. One where he’d slept for four or five hours a night, showered, and left for long days of police work. He had never cooked a meal in its kitchen because he’d never had any pots or pans, much less a plate to put the food on. He’d never seen a single episode of TV here because he didn’t own a television.
He closed the door on the life he was leaving behind and locked it. Heading downstairs, he dropped the keys into the slot of the manager’s office.
He was free of Dallas. Of his old life.
And ready to start a new one in Sugar Springs.
Waiting in the car for him was Walker Cox, his best friend since preschool. They had both attended SMU together, Walker because he was smart and his attorney dad could afford the pricey tuition, and Gideon because he won a football scholarship. Walker had followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a law degree from SMU, while Gideon had gone through the police academy and become a patrolman and then detective. His friend had left his high-powered law firm six months ago and returned to their childhood home in East Texas to take over his dad’s practice. Campbell Cox had decided it was time to retire.
Thanks to another retirement, a new job awaited Gideon, as well. Police Chief Roscoe Hamilton, a good friend of Campbell’s, was turning in his badge after decades in law enforcement. Gideon was Hamilton’s handpicked choice to take his place as head of the Sugar Springs force. Inspired by the Coxes, who had been gone for months on a cruise after their retirements, the Hamiltons had a world cruise of almost one hundred days planned. Roscoe told Gideon that he liked not having to pack and unpack over the three months they would be gone, making stops in over thirty countries and going on excursions in cities as varied as Sydney, Dubai, and Barcelona. After cruising, the Hamiltons would join Roscoe’s brother in a planned retirement community close to Fort Worth, where they would be near their grandkids.
While Gideon liked Roscoe, he was glad the former chief wouldn’t remain in town, hanging over his shoulder, offering unsolicited advice and second-guessing Gideon’s every move. He would be able to run the police department his way.
He had put off accepting the job when Roscoe had first asked him to take the reins back in October, when Gideon had come into town for the high school’s homecoming game. He was working on a task force trying to catch a serial killer and wanted to see that case through. The chief had agreed to put a hold on retirement until Gideon was available to replace him. In a twist of fate, the serial killer had turned out to be an ex-boyfriend of Walker’s fiancée, Rory Addison.
The case was now closed, and Walker and Rory had wed over the Christmas holidays. He had been best man at their wedding and would now see the couple frequently, living in the same small town.
Opening the door, he got into the passenger’s seat. “Keys are turned in. Let’s roll.”
Walker indicated two coffees sitting in the cup holder. “I walked over to the convenience store while you were doing a last check.” He tossed a sealed plastic bag to Gideon. “Rory made blueberry muffins this morning. She didn’t know if anything would be open on New Year’s Day for us to grab a bite to eat.”
He opened the bag, handing a muffin to Walker and pulling out one for himself. “Must be nice to have a wife who thinks about things like that.” Gideon bit into the muffin.
His friend laughed. “It’s nice to have a wife I’m crazy about. Marriage to Rory is incredible, Gid. I never knew it could be like this.” He grinned. “All we need to do now is find you the right woman.”
“Nope. Been down the marriage rabbit hole before, Walker. I did my five years with Melinda.”
Walker snorted. “Melinda was a stuck-up snob. Typical, spoiled rich girl whose daddy gave her everything and more. She loved dating a football player in college, especially one who garnered all the awards you did.”
“Yeah, one who tore up his knee and couldn’t make it in the pros.”
Walker frowned. “You made it to the cut just before the fifty-three man roster was set, Gid. You put yourself through hell, rehabbing your knee. You came this close to a pro career.”
“I was still cut,” he said flatly. “So, no glamorous life for my wife, as I raked in millions.”
Walker glanced over. “Melinda was never good enough for you. She fell in love with the idea of being the wife of a famous athlete. I don’t think she ever really loved you.”
His friend’s words stung, but Gideon realized they were true. “I agree. My ex enjoyed being treated like royalty because I was an All-American player. She thought that would continue when I moved on to the NFL. And when that didn’t pan out, she never got that I had a servant’s heart. It’s part of my makeup.”
“Your character and attitude destined you to serve others in the community. I’m just glad you’ll be doing it now in Sugar Springs.” Walker hesitated a moment and then added, “I do think you can find someone who could be the partner Melinda never was, Gid.”
He shook his head. “I’m not looking to settle down. My focus will be on my new job and making certain Sugar Springs is safe. Move on, Walker. You’ve beaten this topic like a dead horse.”
His friend talked about mutual friends and acquaintances after that, both from Sugar Springs and their days at SMU. Walker elaborated on Rory’s new venture into designing skating wear for athletes and how they hoped to start a family soon, despite being newlyweds.
As they approached Sugar Springs ninety minutes later, Gideon said, “Thanks for getting up early on New Year’s Day and picking me up.”
Walker laughed. “Your car was so ancient, it might not have made the trip here. I can’t believe someone actually paid you a few hundred dollars for it.”
“At least I’ll have the police chief’s SUV now. Roscoe said it’s only a year old. Just one of the perks of the job.”
“The best perk is that you’re now the boss. You can run things like you want. Hey, text Rory that we’re close. She was going to have Cole meet us at the apartment.”
Gideon did, thankful that Rory had arranged for him to meet up with Cole Johnson, the football coach at the high school. Rory had gone through new teacher training with Cole and liked the coach quite a bit. Cole had also gotten married during the Christmas break from school, and he was looking to sublet his apartment since his new wife already owned a house in Sugar Springs.
They pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex a few minutes later, which was located close to the high school. As they got out, he spotted Cole, who was a few inches over six feet, with broad shoulders and a solid build. Johnson, who was about four years younger, had played tight end for the Texas Longhorns and had had a stellar career. He had also suffered an injury which had ended his athletic days, but he had chosen to go into coaching. The Sugar Springs position was his first head job, though, after a decade as an assistant.
Cole approached them, offering his hand. “I’d recognize Gideon Ross anywhere. You were one of my idols when I was in high school. That winning touchdown pass you caught against Notre Dame? Priceless.”
The two shook hands, and Cole greeted Walker. “Nice to see you again, Walker. Let’s go look at the apartment.”
The coach led them down the sidewalk and unlocked the door to a first-floor unit. They stepped inside, and Gideon saw the only furniture was two lawn chairs in the living room, which was a decent size. The kitchen was small and had a breakfast bar. The bedroom did have bed, though.
Cole laughed. “You’re welcome to the chairs and bed, which is new, by the way. I’ve got some kitchen items. Not much. A few things still in the pantry. I’m sure Rory told you that I just got married. I’ve moved in with my wife and her son.”
“It’s all I need,” he said. “How long does your lease run?”
“Through the end of July, so if you’re willing to sublet it until then, I’m happy for you to take it over,” Cole said. “Unless you also get married and need to sub-sublet it,” he joked.
“Hey, I’ve got one divorce behind me from almost a decade ago. I’ve been pretty much married to my job ever since. I’ve figured out marriage and me don’t mix,” he said.
Walker and Cole looked at each other—and died laughing.
Gideon figured both men, being newlyweds, were smitten with their wives and thought every man should be married.
“I’ll take it—and everything in it,” he told the coach. “Although I’m definitely going to get some furniture and a TV. I’m hoping I’ll actually have time to watch a few games.”
“I live at the fieldhouse,” Cole said. “I didn’t spend much time here. Glad you can take over my lease, Gideon.”
They went outside, and Cole turned the keys over to Gideon. They decided Cole would continue to pay the monthly rent to the manager, while Gideon would then pay Cole. It would give him a good chunk of time to familiarize himself with Sugar Springs again and locate and purchase a house. He’d told himself now that he would have regular hours, he would also get a dog. He hadn’t had one since he was a kid and wanted the companionship a pet would bring him.
He offered the coach his hand. “Thanks for helping me out, Cole. This saves me from having to find a place to live. Like you, I’m sure I’ll be spending most of my time at the station. Maybe we can get together and talk football sometime, though.”
“I’d like that,” Cole said. “I’d love for you to meet Nova and Leo, too.”
“It’s New Year’s Day,” Walker pointed out. “There are bowl games starting soon. Why don’t you and Nova come over to the house and watch a couple with us? Rory’s made a huge pot of chili and has all kinds of dips and chips waiting. Gid had promised to come spend the day with us.”
“Let me check with her,” Cole said.
“Do that while we’re carrying in Gid’s stuff,” Walker said. “He travels light so it won’t take us long.”
They brought in Gideon’s clothes and the few boxes he had packed.
When they returned outside, Cole said, “Nova is in. My wife knew nothing about football when we first met, but Leo and I have been teaching her all about the game. She’s really become a big fan.”
“Leo’s invited, too,” Walker said, turning to Gideon and adding, “Leo plays wide receiver for the high school.”
He wondered about Cole Johnson marrying a woman old enough to have a son that age but figured it was none of his business.
“Leo is over at the Fletchers’ house with his friends all day. Nova baked a few dozen cookies and sent them along with him. I’ll stop by and pick her up, and then we’ll head to your place, Walker.”
Walker drove Gideon to his house, where Rory flung her arms around him.
“It’s so good to have you in Sugar Springs for good, Gideon,” she told him. “Ready for a day of football?”
“Cole and Nova Johnson are coming over to join us,” Walker said, petting Comet, their Irish setter.
“Oh, that’s great,” Rory said. “I’ve only met her once. It’ll be nice to get to know her. Cole is a terrific guy. The kids love him.”
“Yeah. He’s bequeathed me a couple of lawn chairs and the bed at his apartment,” Gideon said drily. “All his worldly belongings before marriage.”
She laughed. “Sounds like your soulmate. A man who travels lightly.”
The Johnsons arrived soon after, and Rory said, “Come to the kitchen. Let’s get everyone something to eat and drink.”
They spent the rest of the day watching football and talking. Gideon saw the camaraderie between the couples and chalked it up to them all being newlyweds. He admitted to himself that he was a little envious. It had been so long since he’d had any physical closeness with a woman.
Cole and Nova left after the second bowl game ended. Gideon saw the couple had had enough social time and were ready to be alone. Rory insisted that Gideon stay at least one night with them.
“You have no bed. No groceries to speak of. Knowing you, you didn’t even bring shampoo or towels. We can take care of that tomorrow,” she said. “It’ll be Friday, so stores will be open. We’ll stock your fridge and pantry. Maybe even go into Tyler and get you some more furniture.”
Walker laughed. “Don’t try to stop her when she’s on a roll, Gid. Rory is a force of nature. Just go with it.”
“I don’t report for work until Monday, so I do have time for a little shopping,” he said, glad he’d have a woman to help him pick out a few things. His Dallas apartment had come furnished, with cheap items. He’d had no say when he and Melinda had bought furniture. He hadn’t been able to afford what was to her taste, so her parents had stepped in and paid for an interior decorator to furnish the condo they’d purchased.
Gideon said goodnight to his friends, going to the guestroom.
As he drifted off to sleep, he thought he was starting act three. The first act consisted of his life in Sugar Springs. The second act had been his time spent in Dallas. This third act was his return home.
He hoped to make it a good one.
The alarm went off, and Deb silenced it, rising from the bed. Jake lifted his head in anticipation and then leaped to the floor, excited that it was time for their morning exercise.
As Deb readied for her daily run, she was grateful she could do so, no longer afraid to be pounding the pavement, thinking that Cris Calder would be stalking her.
Hopefully, today would be the day the murderer got his just punishment. His trial had ended yesterday afternoon about half-past two. Deb had not missed a single day of testimony, sitting in the first row, directly behind Calder and his legal team, her presence a constant reminder to him of what he had done to her parents.
The prosecutor’s case had been a strong one, and Deb hoped the jury would come to its decision before today was out.
Because she was ready to finally start a new life.
She had sold her childhood home, which she had inherited, months ago. Although she had to disclose that two murders had occurred within it, market inventory was low, and the house had sold quickly for above its listing price. She had not wanted anything from inside the house and had an agent hold an estate sale, where everything from furniture and linens to kitchenware and art on the walls had been sold. The only thing Deb had kept was a slow cooker her mother had made many meals in and her father’s coin collection, two sweet reminders of those whom she would always love.
She hoped to begin again once this trial ended. She had been wearing a dark wig which reminded her of Catherine Zeta Jones’ character in Chicago. The trial had garnered a huge amount of media attention, and she had wanted to hide from the world while still being in plain sight. The dark wig and glasses she wore every day were like pieces of armor she put on, girding herself against the press and Cris Calder.
Recently, Deb had also had Winston help her apply for a name change. It was fairly easy to accomplish in Texas. She was over eighteen and had no felony charges against her. Her choice of name wasn’t vulgar, and she showed good cause why she was requesting the change. She’d had her fingerprints taken and paid for the required FBI background check before filing the papers with the court clerk and then attended her hearing. A very sympathetic judge signed the order, and Deb had then filed that order with the clerk. Thankfully, no journalists had gotten wind of her actions, and she believed she would be able to shed not only the wig and glasses but her old name and rise like a phoenix from the ashes with a new moniker, looking like her old self.
Once she received the official paperwork stating her new name, she’d taken care of official documents and seeing the change reflected in items such as her Social Security card and car registration. She’d gotten a new driver’s license but hadn’t yet applied for a passport. She’d never journeyed outside the country, and travel was definitely on her bucket list.
When the verdict came in, she would go exclusively by her new identity and hopefully, start in a different place away from Houston, trying to forget—if not erase—her past.
She finished dressing and brushed her teeth, pulling the dark ski cap over her blonde hair, not bothering to wear the wig at five-thirty on a dark, February morning.
“Ready to go, Jake?” she asked, and the beagle scampered to her.
Deb snapped the leash onto the dog’s collar, and they set out from the Airbnb which she had rented ever since the sale of her parents’ house.
As she ran the streets of the quiet neighborhood, she couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder every now and then. Running had always been a joy, but ever since Cris Calder terrorized her, she would veer from dark shadows and startle at an unexpected noise behind her. Sometimes she thought she would never be able to put the trauma behind her.
While running, she wondered if she would be able to land a job as a vet anytime soon. She preferred a large city because of its anonymity, but she would be willing to relocate to a small town’s practice if the opportunity arose. She had already received a second copy of her bachelor’s and DVM diplomas from A&M, with her new name displayed on it, and that was the name she used now as she applied for open positions.
The only person who knew her new name besides Winston was Dr. Wallman. She had contacted her former employer, asking to see him away from the office, and he had agreed to meet with her. Over coffee, she had shared with him that she was starting a new life with a name change, trying to escape the horrors of her past. Deb asked Wallman if he would be willing to continue to provide a job reference for her under her new moniker.
He had quickly agreed, expressing sympathy for her situation. The vet had also promised not to share her new name or where she eventually would practice.
She tugged on Jake’s leash, having him turn left to return home when he would have preferred to keep going straight. Beagles were easygoing, loving, and curious dogs. The breed needed lots of playtime, though. Because of that, she took Jake on her run each morning and tried to walk him for half an hour at night.
She had come to love Jake, despite where he came from. Jake had been Cris Calder’s dog, the one he had brought to Deb with the broken leg. When Calder was arrested for the murders of her parents, he had asked to meet with Deb before giving the police a statement. She had done so reluctantly. Two detectives had been in the room with her, both who guaranteed her safety.
Her stalker had been led in, handcuffed, and those cuffs had been attached to some apparatus on the table which prevented him from moving too far. Calder had not expressed any remorse for his actions, nor had he apologized for killing her parents to punish her. Instead, his one concern had been the year-old beagle. The accused prisoner had asked Deb to take the dog and keep him until after the trial, when he said they could be parents to the pup and their other human children. His words had chilled her, but surprisingly, she had agreed to take the beagle—and didn’t plan on giving him back if the jury were crazy enough to let Calder walk.
Deb had renamed the pup, though. Jake had taken to his new name and environment quickly, and she had fallen in love with her new pet. She had never believed in the sins of the fathers being visited on their children, and she looked at the innocent beagle as a lifeline. She had ceased contact with all her old friends and acquaintances, cutting ties with everyone and everything she had known in preparation for her future as someone else. Consequently, Jake had become her only companion and confidant, and she knew she might have gone off the deep end had she not had the dog’s company.
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